Portraits & Passages

Chapter 10

You would rather throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror, and here are the stones.”   - Rumi

Madame Butterfly

The Portrait of Jack Doepp and Richard Magpion, 1972, 1977

I did not see Pam Newhouse for over three years, and then in the late spring of 1977 she telephoned saying she wanted to buy the grattage portrait of Jack and  Richard. She had taken her junior year off from Cornell and worked as a secretary. So she had her own money to buy the painting. She had saved just over $2,000.  Jack had commissioned the double portrait of himself and his lover back in the autumn of 1972. I was to be paid $400, and Jack put me up at his design studio  efficiency on West 85th Street since he lived then with Richard, a half Philippine, aspiring opera singer with waist long hair.

The painting showed them as they were - two flamboyant, off the wall queens in mock opera. That part was all right, but Jack thought his nose too large, and  perhaps also for financial reasons, refused the portrait. They had never mentioned Pam to me until their dinner party that by the freak accident of my calling them got  me invited. She had been their summer stock apprentice and attached herself to Richard who acted as her mentor. He taught her among other things the fine art of  shoplifting. Years later he would eventually die of aids in prison, having been relentlessly unapologetic before the judge for stealing a bicycle. Richard, however,  was a wonderful cook and a delightful host. He had a working fireplace on the top floor of a dilapidated brownstone in the west fifties. He was a Taurus with a velvety  voice to Jack's Aries with a mid-western squeal. They were to lock horns once too often.

That Pam had decided in her mind that I should sell her the portrait for the same price that Jack was to pay five years before, disregarding that inflation was  devaluing the dollar, and that I now saw the portrait as an important work, might suggest a denial of others’ best interest. So that when I bargained for two thousand , to which she reluctantly agreed, and which I immediately reduced to fifteen hundred for friendship's sake, she was furious that I was taking advantage of her.

But a bargain for the daughter of the proprietor of the glamour industry was not a bargain I could afford. Even then $400 barely got me through a month. So, yes, if I  did without, didn't need art supplies, didn't go out at all, yes it would go further. That's how one lived. And even a year later, Pam reminded me of my taking her.

For all these years it has hung in the former children’s quarters – now Pam’s mother’s sowing room in her Park Avenue apartment. I don’t believe Pam ever  visits her mother there, maybe to avoid seeing it and the large abstract painting that I gave for the entrance hall back in 1974. Pam, herself, had said back then that she  would not have her mother’s place become the Richard Rappaport mausoleum.

Untitled Abstract, Photographed in children's rooms

Park Avenue apartment, 1971

None-the-less, just recently her mother told me that the portrait that I did of Pam all those years ago and which had been kept in the closet for three decades is now  hanging in her dining room. I was somewhat dismayed at the time when I painted the portrait to do an image of Pam that I didn’t expect or see before. I should have  known not to take it over to Si’s house. But I did, and the butler let me drop it off. The next  time Pam and I joined Si and Victoria for dinner, the portrait was hidden in a closet, and Si refused to even speak about it.

 It wasn’t flattering, but that’s just the way it came out. I’m just the receiver. But why didn’t I destroy it right then and there! Something stopped me. Soon  afterwards Pam and I stopped seeing one another. However, I caught something back then that now her mother responds to. Perhaps now, Pam has visibly grown  into what I captured back in 1974. Whoever is visible now was not the person who first became my friend.

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The last time I visited Si and Victoria at their house on East 70th Street was right around Pam’s birthday in1981. She came with Steve and asked me to join them.  The initial look from Victoria was a mixture of disbelief and exasperation that I had been invited to return after an absence of so many years. It was a signal that lasted  only a split second telling me that she was only putting up with my presence for this time only. No one else saw that message or my complicit acknowledgement. So the party went well.

I wasn’t surprised that there was a recent Mel Bochner added to Si’s collection, and when I recognized a small Bill Jensen “Cornucopia”, Si was delighted that I  knew his work until I explained that Bill was the guy who married Barbara Schwartz. Si showed his dismay that this was not the confirmation of his new artist  that he was looking for, and then there was the added confusion that this was not the Barbara Schwartz whom he and Victoria knew – not the Barbara and Eugene  Schwartz, the collectors, who lived across the street. Once again, I disappointed!

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“If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” - Jesus

Now, if there are those who wish to accuse me of provoking undue notoriety in mentioning the Newhouses, perhaps that is so. That certainly would have been the  case thirty years ago. They, none-the-less, played a part in my life. There have been very few families with whom I have been so involved.

However, the absurd accident of entering their world has lent me an extraordinary window in retrospect from which to make observations. And the most profound  understanding came with the realization that people are just people, and that everybody is struggling to find meaning and joy; that, and the fantasy of the people at the top is not the reality.

If I had lacked the delicacy of not hiding my passion for my life’s work, I suppose they had all the right to be annoyed by my boorishness. Perhaps I am to blame. I  am far from perfect. I react when provoked. I have never had an easy time of absorbing gracefully negativity towards my person. In short, I am not a courtier.

It is only because of chance that I crossed paths with Si Newhouse. Even though we both love art, our involvement with it is distinctly different. I was born to make it . He came to it already grown to acquire what was well established. It is not unusual that artists and collectors are hesitant in accepting the other’s motivations –  their education and understanding of art is so very different. So it is understandable that coming from such extremes in economic and social circumstance that there would be incomprehension.

The same could be applied to the disenchantment that Pam and I now see in the other. For I have long thought that the bitterness she feels towards me came from  inside herself. But it wasn’t I who made that hardness. Please, who among us haven’t had disappointment? Should that be cause for lack of goodwill or anger when other’s still hold onto their dreams?

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The Treasures of the Earth are Movement, Courage, Laughter, and Love.
They are for the taking.   - Mark Helprin

In the late 1980’s I visited Pam and her husband, Steve, in Bucks County. We were in the kitchen as they were opening their mail. I could see them commenting  on a beautiful card on which a friend had written a letter, and they read it standing together. Then, knowing that I was watching from just a few feet away they finished  reading, looked at each other nodding in agreement, and while smiling, Pam with a little chuckle, tore up the letter and flung it into the garbage with a flourish of brushed hands.

Now I understand some people hate clutter and will not hold onto every last memento that streams into their lives, even for a day. If what they receive does not  touch their hearts there is nothing to dispute for it is their right. But there are ways, and there are ways. And there are also messages hidden in what are everyday  household acts that are performed very consciously before the intended receiver that he make no mistake about it. And as far as I was concerned, the message was undeniably sent to me.

But for the most part the messages delivered to me over the years were more skillfully nuanced, after all Pam was raised at court. She had seen the prerogatives  of position and the bending of the knee by those attending her father. She knows why people approach her; she is not dumb. She had just imagined that she could  leave it when it suited her. Foolish wish since it was only pretend anyway. But she thought she wouldn’t have to pay. Well, we all must serve somebody as the song  goes. It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but payment is due!

Then, I too was mistaken badly. I had thought that the unspoken contract between us was to imagine Pam outside the parenthetical position of privilege of her family,  and by never expecting worldly favors we would enjoy friendship. Then everything would be above board, and I could be myself. Here I was deluding myself as much  as Pam. I obviously liked the association of being close to power just as much as she would never let go of her prerogatives and that big stick that she kept in reserve. So it was all impossible.

Once Pam recognized that it was just too much of a burden, she closed down. Though it all happened in quiet stages as our relationship became progressively  vacant. All the while she continued calling on my birthdays, and I would call on hers. That is why I ended that playacting. I’m not here to be part of a farce, and I made myself clear.

Pam doesn’t like it when someone else takes control of the games she plays. But she might as well be angry at the mirror. Come to think about it, a woman  fortuneteller in Paris looking at my chart said something about my acute receiving/sending abilities – how much I take in, and how much I can’t contain and  need to express. I suppose I give back what has been sent. I guess that makes me a mirror. No wonder my portraits get refused.

 

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